Five Thoughts 12-31-17 (Mavs 116, Thunder 113)

1. Focused more on the greater picture of 2017 as a whole and looking ahead to 2018, but tonight’s game certainly deserves at least some commentary. It was a disappointing loss. The Milwaukee loss was very much acceptable to me; this one not so much. Feels like a minor step back after what was a good month a VERY good two weeks or so. I wanted 6-2 on the final 8 to end the year and I got exactly that. But had I known we’d be 6-0 at one point, losing the final two would have surprised me. First of all, clearly we can’t sustain our stellar D without Andre. His absence was glaring on that end of the floor and really exposes how we are bereft of any pop off the bench at that position. Andre is an essential piece on this team. Secondly, the Mavs hit shots. Fifteen three’s to be exact. The biggest one of the night was banked in off the glass. There is definitely some bad luck at play there catching a team on fire. This was the Mavs fourth straight win and they were coming off a game where they scored 128 points. Dennis Smith is a fantastic looking rookie and he was great down the stretch. Their record stinks, but the Mavs are a better/more dangerous team than many teams in the league ahead of them in the standings. So it’s hard for me to say that “old habits” bit the Thunder tonight because they really didn’t. Russ, PG, and Melo all played well. The latter two shot the long ball extremely well. Things looked pretty fluid and cohesive on offensive. It really didn’t look anything like those early season struggles. The issues tonight were all about the inability to guard the Mavs on the perimeter. All that said, it’s still not good to suffer a second loss to Dallas. And it continues a trend of OKC struggling with non-playoff teams. Three of the bottom four teams in the East are Charlotte, Brooklyn, and Orlando. The Thunder are 0-3 against those teams. The Mavs and Kings are two of the bottom four teams in the West and the Thunder are 1-3 against them. If I had to choose, I’d prefer this to the Thunder beating up on lesser lights and losing to the big dogs. But ultimately OKC won’t be able to make a run in the standings if they don’t start consistently taking care of business of middling to poor teams.

2. Speaking of the standings, now is a natural time to take a look. I haven’t paid much attention thus far this season as what’s happening on the court has been more important. But we are now just four games away from the halfway mark of the season and in a few hours we turn the calendar to a new year. 20-17 is a disappointing record for OKC at this juncture, but when contrasted to the 8-12 start it doesn’t look (or feel) nearly as bad. We’ve seen what they are capable of so I’m not overly concerned about the current standing. I am also not overly concerned about the mash of teams directly behind the Thunder right now. I think they will slowly start to pull away from Denver, Portland, New Orleans, etc… I think we start gaining some distance there to the point where the 5 seed becomes the basement. The goal will be to get at least to the 4 seed and secure home court in round one. The three seed is also still in range. So targeting the Wolves and Spurs makes sense as we enter 2018. If they have an aim at San Antonio, they need to make their move now. They are currently five back in the loss column. And we know the Spurs aren’t going to crater. So the Thunder need to get them in their sights and gain a game or two over the next month or so so that they enter post-all star break with a legitimate chance to catch them.

3. It’s always kind of annoying that the NBA season technically spans over two different years. I’ve always ignored the first part of “The 2017-2018 Thunder” and just go with the latter year. To me, this is the 2018 season. Last year was the 2017 season. The year we went to the Finals was the 2012 season. So when talking 2017 Thunder the big story would Russ and his MVP season followed by the off-season moves to bring PG and Melo to OKC. 2017 was nothing if not eventful. And don’t discount that. Always remember that this is entertainment. As a season ticket holder/fan I want to enjoy the games and the banter about the team. Obviously winning is the easiest way to ensure that. Beyond winning though, “good stories” and exciting games/moves also matter to me. In that regard, the organization totally delivered in 2017. It was the first season post-KD and my fear was that the Thunder would just sort of die. The organization would just kind of crumble and maybe Russ would leave too and the sizzle of our first 8 years would just fade into the ether and memory banks. But it didn’t. Quit the contrary. 2017 proved to be as memorable a season as the Thunder have had. Russ made sure of that. And then Presti built on that by giving us real hope again. Even if the hope proves to be false, it still matters. And now that we know Russ is here to stay I think we know that a certain level of hope will remain; regardless of whether or not this particular experiment works. So that’s how I will remember 2017 as a Thunder fan: The year that hope survived.

4. As far as 2017 goes in terms of this particular season… well, November was rough. That was not a good month for OKC. The road woes were terrible and the stars were most certainly not aligning (literally or figuratively). Thunder were tough to watch throughout the entire month and while I personally never totally panicked or wanted changes, I did understand the sentiment and I do think they were flirting with panic button time. December came along and provided a sigh of relief. They didn’t really look good early on, but they started to win ugly. Which was way better than losing ugly. Then, they started making shots and moving the ball and coming together. They started to look like a team that can do some damage. They ended the month with a stutter, but all in all it was a positive progression and a major improvement from the depths of November. Now it’s time for them to take the next step and establish what we’ve seen recently as their consistent identity. They play 14 games in January with a 6/8 home/road split. The six home games are VERY manageable with none coming against upper echelon teams. The road slate is tougher, but of the 8 half are against teams currently not in the playoffs. And of the 14 games only the road game at Cleveland will be against an elite NBA team. They do play three back to back sets, but one is the Lakers/Clippers combo which requires now travel in between. Overall, it is a manageable schedule. I think 9-5 is a reasonable goal. I think 10-4 is possible. If they win 9-10 games in January I think they will for sure begin to distance themselves from the middle pack while keeping the Wolves and Spurs in their sights (possibly even catching Minnesota). The month starts with an important trip out west. It will be hard to achieve the aforementioned win total if they don’t start well. Back to back with Los Angeles teams and then Phoenix. That needs to be a minimum of two wins.

5. Pressed for a predication on the remainder of the season I’d do a lot of hemming and hawing. I’m still figuring this team out and I am unsure of a few things. My favorite thing about them is that they’ve played their best against the best teams. They have especially shown an ability to lock down the better scoring teams in the league. In other words, they look like a team built for the post season. As long as they get there with a reasonable amount of momentum, they are going to be tough to deal with in the playoffs. My biggest concern is that we haven’t seen the offense play consistently enough yet to determine if their early struggles are indeed behind them. Fear would be a regression in certain situations to their poor play from earlier in the year. There is also a glaring hole on the bench. No shooting other than Felton. No one to rely on to score when the other guys need someone to pick them up. In the playoffs that isn’t as big of a deal, but it could continue to bite them the rest of the regular season. My final prediction is that we see the Thunder gradually improve their standing, but they still have some games/stretches that leave you wondering. I think it will be a long, slow climb but that they will catch the Wolves for the 4 seed. They will come up a few games short of San Antonio for the 3 seed. They will have home court in round one against Minnesota in what will be an exciting and tense series. The Thunder will win in 6. They will then get their shot at the Warriors after GS handles the Clippers (who make a late run at the 8 seed) with ease. The Thunder will play GS better than any team did in any series last year. But they won’t be able to get over the hump in the games played at Oracle and the Warriors will eliminate them in a very tough series where many come away thinking perhaps those were the two best teams in the league. It goes well enough to where PG and Melo want to come back to take another shot at it— even if it’s a short term deal for PG. If this prediction came to pass I could live with it. I also hope I’m wrong. I hope the Thunder catch the Spurs and get to the 3 seed. It would likely set up an easier round one series and I would pick OKC to beat Houston in round two. Catching in the Warriors in the WCF would have a much different feel than if they caught them in the second round.

Ed Kleese is a long-time Thunder season ticket holder and a smart Thunder fan. You can read all his work on his own personal blog.

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Ed Kleese